By Richard Stone
So Fresno has a new person in the Office of Independent Review, with the task of reviewing all cases of an officer-involved shooting (OIS) and auditing the handling of public complaints against the police. Will this time be more satisfactory than the term of previous auditor Eddie Aubrey? Have the problems reported by Aubrey in his year-end report even been acknowledged? For answers, I submitted a series of questions to City Manager Mark Scott, which he answered by e-mail, and I interviewed new Independent Reviewer Rick Rasmussen.
My initial focus was on the problem areas noted in Aubrey’s long-delayed report. The salient issue was the high number of OIS cases and the large number (48) that remained open and thereby not even subject to audit. The withdrawal of the District Attorney’s Office from the review process (leaving an “unheard of,” in Rasmussen’s words, vacuum in the process) was clearly a contributing factor. But Scott stated that the backlog had now been taken care of and that “the DA just announced protocols to get back into doing investigations.” A hopeful start.
Aubrey also had noted problems in implementing the new IA Pro software (installed at his urging) to track citizen complaints, with special concern about one component, the Early Alert System (EAS), which identifies officers with higher-than-average numbers of complaints. Scott reported that this system was now fully operational and its effectiveness would be reviewed by Rasmussen as part of his routine assignments.
Aubrey had also strongly recommended the use of in-car and on-officer video equipment to record contacts with the public. Scott seconded the idea and said that “Chief [Jerry] Dyer [is] having in-car video equipment spec’d and we’re looking for funding.”
Overall, it appears that Aubrey’s tenure did have a positive impact: He had identified procedural problems in reviewing police activities, and his recommendations have been mostly heeded. That’s all to the good. But the biggest problem remained untouched, namely the public perception that there is an unacceptable amount of misuse of force and abuse of authority by certain officers, and that those involved are not held accountable. My interview with Rasmussen was largely keyed on how he would approach this problem—and if he felt he could effect change.
I met with Rasmussen at his City Hall back office on a Sunday morning, when all is quiet and he can use his part-time time to good advantage. He was informal (dressed in sweats) and cordial, open to any and all questions. He gave me a full 90 minutes, and I was impressed by his candor and sense of mission. He carries himself with confidence, an almost-stereotypical physical and moral rectitude that might well be expected considering his military background and history as an FBI undercover agent. It’s easy to believe that he “plays for keeps.”
Rasmussen verified that the review of past OIS cases is now up-to-date, and he has been allowed to “monitor” new cases as they occur (though he doesn’t “audit” them officially until after the initial review is completed). He feels, so far, that he is being kept in the loop and is able to have input into the handling of cases early on. He also says, “I don’t know about previous to my hiring, but the current work shown to me is being handled by members of Homicide and has been outstanding in it thoroughness. Not that I agree with every finding, but the process has been impeccable.”
Rasmussen also says that the Fresno Police Department is working hard to get IA Pro up to maximal effectiveness and, again, he is being given full access to complaints as they are logged. He had two points to emphasize here: 1) that his focus is not on the minor complaints (e.g., for “bad attitude” by officers) except to check by sample that they are being routed to the appropriate level of review, and then dealt with, and 2) that the law regarding officer use of force and/or weapons involves two tricky questions: what did the officer believe at the time, and was it reasonable to so believe?
Having served on the enforcement side earlier in his career, Rasmussen says he understands the pressures the officers are under, but he will demand that they be able to verbalize why they believed there was a threat to them or to the public. “And,” he goes on, “I don’t have much patience with the ‘resisting arrest’ type of explanations unless they are strongly corroborated. When it’s just a matter of someone flouting your authority or spitting at you, dealing with that stuff is part of your job description. When I see that coming up more than once or twice in an officer’s record, that’s a red flag to me.”
He, too, is a strong advocate of on-the-spot video: “Let’s see what happened and judge from that. Ninety-five percent of the time, officers are vindicated—they should want the evidence seen. And if they made a mistake in judgment, like all humans do, they can learn from it. The problem is when they’re not corrected and do the same things over again.”
Rasmussen welcomes being used as a “first response” by citizens with police-related problems, understanding how hard it can be to know where to start. “People are free to call me with their complaints—my number is [559-]621-8614. I will direct them to the right channel and will follow up. But let me be clear, I am an advocate for everyone to ‘get their day in court.’ But after that, my loyalty is only to the facts and the law.”
Rasmussen is in favor of the recent proposal by City Council Member Larry Westerlund to set up a voluntary mediation procedure for citizen complaints against officers, a proposal that would appoint Rasmussen as part of the team selecting cases appropriate for this kind of review. He sees this as a way to save officer time and make the review process more open to the public. As of this writing, the proposal was being held up while the Fresno Police Officers’ Association considers it—apparently not feeling that the ability to opt out is a sufficient safeguard.
Rasmussen seems sincerely committed to visibility and transparency in his work and will be issuing short, easy-to-read quarterly reports starting in January. These will track all complaints and OIS cases in easily understood form. He feels he has the strong support of Mayor Ashley Swearingen and Chief Dyer, and—although he has not been given all the tools and freedom needed to work with full effectiveness—he is sure he can make important changes in the training and expectations of officers, and in the way the public views the handling of its concerns.
So even though Jacky Parks (president of the police union) has called the auditor position “a waste of money,” Rasmussen believes that in time even the officers will come to see that they, too, benefit from public trust earned through honesty and fairness. This, as Hamlet said, would be “an end devoutly to be wished for.”
Author’s note: Aubrey and Parks were contacted for their input but did not answer the messages left for them.
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance. Contact him at email@example.com.